Photos by Jonathan Kalan, Video by UNEP
Achim Steiner, Executive Director, UNEP
Achim Steiner is well known for speaking on climate change and the green economy.
Thanks to his leadership among others, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is a leading proponent of the Green Economy Initiative (GEI) designed to assist governments in “greening” their economies by reshaping and refocusing policies and investments towards a range of sectors. These include clean technologies, renewable energies, water services, green transportation, waste management, green buildings and sustainable agriculture and forest management.
“Climate change has become something that most people acknowledge as a [real] phenomenon… For many people the question is, can we really cope toward climate change? And what would change by trying to move toward a low-carbon economy? Would it mean that we lose our jobs? Would it make our economies more successful? Would it affect the wealth and well-being of our communities and of individuals?” As Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Under-Secretary General, Achim Steiner does not ask easy questions.
With a background in development economics and environmental policy from Oxford University and the University of London, the business-like Steiner brings in economic arguments to conversations about climate change.
“Changes in climate will affect everything around us,” says Steiner. “The question is, how much will we accept responsibility for future generations?”
Since 2006, he set out to prove that “achieving greater sustainability is no contradiction to development and economic prosperity.” According to a 2013 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), 73.4 million young people, or 12.6% of the world’s youth population, will face unemployment in the immediate future. To Steiner, the disparity of jobs is directly related to another problem: greenhouse gas emissions that have reached over 400 parts per million for the first time in history.
The UNEP Green Economy report released in 2011 states that by investing two percent of global GDP in renewable energy and resource efficiency, 2050 will look very different. Energy demand will decrease by 40 percent, countries will save $760 billion in fuel costs, and employment levels in the energy sector will rise by 20 percent.
Steiner is driven by an optimistic vision of the future – a world rich in natural capital where farmers enjoy high crop yields and rich soil. Poor communities have the water and land resources necessary to meet their needs in times of natural and economic disasters. Governments use tradable permits, taxes, and incentives to encourage corporations to invest in clean technologies, green roofs, and sustainable entrepreneurship.
In an interview with Avoicomunicare, Steiner explains his reason for environmental hope: “A great change is underway… In China, we see a significant investment in the transition to a green economy. We can go to a country like Iran where fossil fuel subsidies have been phased out and payments to poorer households are happening in terms of compensating them for the higher price of fuels… You can go to Kenya where three years ago a green energy act was introduced, which has led to Kenya doubling its energy infrastructure over the next ten years without adding any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because it is all renewable energy.”
Having lived and worked in over nine countries from South Africa and Vietnam to Switzerland and Pakistan, Steiner has the advantage of a broad intercultural perspective and a voice from a global stage. In September 2014, he will be meeting with Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General at a climate leadership summit in New York, bringing together heads of state and industry leaders. “Without personal responsibility among those with the power to make a difference, not much will change,” he says.
At the same time, Steiner recognizes the value of thinking on a microscale and empowering the individual: “Change begins with each one of us in our communities, our schools, our neighborhoods, our families… In a very personal sense, anyone who has children will realize very quickly that when you look at your own children and realize that the world that they may live in thirty to fifty years from now may no longer have options to choose in terms of what to do about global warming, that is reason enough to get up every morning and be committed to this work.”
During his remaining two years as Executive Director of UNEP, Steiner will work towards helping communities address biodiversity and ecosystem loss, mitigating conflict, providing countries with legal support on environmental issues, and “making the environmental case economically literate.” But most of all, he aims to reframe this change “as not only necessary, but also possible.”
Some other conclusions from the Green Economy report include that using a green investment scenario, we’ll achieve higher annual growth rates than a business as usual scenario within 5-10 years. In addition, this economic growth is also decoupled from environmental impacts: the global ecological footprint to biocapacity ratio can decline from a current level of 1.5 to less than 1.2 by 2050, versus rising beyond a level of 2 under a business as usual scenario.
“Achieving greater sustainability is no contradiction to development and economic prosperity,” explains Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme and United Nations Under-Secretary General. With an educational background in development economics and environmental policy, Steiner champions business-driven solutions to the challenge of reducing carbon emissions, such as clean technologies, green roofs, and sustainable entrepreneurship. Leader of the Green Economy Initiative (GEI), Steiner emphasizes the need for large corporations to be at the forefront of pressuring governments to act on global warming and invest in renewable resources.